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Community College Baccalaureate:
A Solution in Search of a Problem
Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan
April 2008
Education reform has been on the mind of Michigan policy makers
for as many years as we have provided public higher education.
However, the conversation took on new meaning and energy subsequent to the Lt. Governor’s Commission on Higher Education
and Economic Growth convened in 2004. The commission made
19 recommendations to Governor Jennifer Granholm, and for the
past three years every major educational initiative has been linked
to this visioning document. One recommendation – advocating
the offering of more Applied Baccalaureate programs at community colleges – has received considerable attention recently and
is worth examining in greater detail. The ninth recommendation
reads as follows:
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1. Michigan’s higher education institutions must examine
the availability and geographic coverage of higher education
services and put in place the necessary partnerships to ensure
that residents in all parts of the state have access to two- and
four-year baccalaureate programs.
2. Universities that currently grant applied baccalaureate
degrees must forge new partnerships with community colleges to expand the availability of this credential. In addition,
the Michigan legislature must pass enabling legislation during
the 2005–2006 legislative session that defines the criteria and
process by which Michigan community colleges may offer applied baccalaureate degrees in response to unmet economic,
employer, or community needs in their service regions where
partnership arrangements have failed to meet these needs.
In January 2008, the Department of Labor and Economic Growth
(DLEG) was granted additional funds to commission a study on
the issue of the applied baccalaureate, but the legislation effectively dismissed the first portion and went immediately to point
two. The essence of the first point in the recommendation was
to assess the needs of the entire state in an effort to identify and
address existing gaps in the provision of postsecondary opportunities. The second point simply put forth an existing strategy
and suggested it should be expanded to meet some of the needs
identified through a comprehensive study. Instead of following
the recommendation of the Lt. Governors Commission, the legislation introduced reads as follows:
From the funds appropriated in part 1, it is the intent of the legislature that the department [DLEG] identify ways to enhance local
access to baccalaureate degree opportunities in applied sciences
and applied technologies through better utilizing the existing
capacity of community colleges. Funds in part 1 are provided to
allow the department to commission an independent study to
determine where in Michigan these programs would be most ben-
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The study should consider criteria such as:
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Regions that have historically been dependent on
manufacturing and automotive related industries where
workers have been displaced or are in transition.
Communities that are significantly below the state
average of working age adults with four-year degrees.
Locations served by community colleges that have
a strong track record for advanced technical training,
workforce development programs and employer
Communities that do not contain a public university
already offering similar degree opportunities.
Locations where the community college has both faculty
and facilities already in place that are capable of
supporting baccalaureate level programs in applied
technical fields.
Evidence of employer support and future employment
opportunities for graduates of the programs.
The state of Michigan missed an important opportunity with the
most recent study conducted on the need to expand baccalaureate
education across the state. At a time when the state has among
the highest unemployment rate in the nation (above 7%), is in the
top 10 states in terms of home foreclosures, and collectively ranks
34th in terms of the proportion of adults over 25 with a four-year
degree, it is exactly appropriate to look at where existing needs
are not being met and to find ways to fill that need. Unfortunately,
the legislation calling for this study began with a solution and then
went in search of a problem. Certainly challenges exist in Michigan and we should make every effort to understand the nature
of those problems and to find unique and innovative strategies
to meet those needs. However, policy is not well served when
we use the proposed solution as a prism through which to view
the problem.
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The Department of Labor and Economic Growth (DLEG) commissioned study assumed that the needs in Michigan were confined
to the service areas of the 28 community colleges and, as a result,
it missed the opportunity to assess the needs of the entire state,
including those areas served by four-year public universities
where a community college is not present.1 The legislation also
introduced an added set of problems by establishing an unrealistic
timeframe within which to conduct the study. The work was to
begin in February and the final report was to be issued by April
1. The result was that the Voorhees group – which among other
things, specializes in community college research – was the only
contractor to bid on the research. In order to meet the deadline,
the research was constrained to a manageable project, effectively
missing the bigger picture for the needs of the state. The legislation itself is not the fault of DLEG or the Voorhees group, but
it constrains the scope of the inquiry in a way that presupposes
how the problem should be addressed and prevents a broader
understanding of the challenges facing Michigan.
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This legislation missed an opportunity to assess the broader
needs of the state but it clearly had another purpose in mind, as
the 6 criteria to identify appropriate candidates for the applied
baccalaureate suggest. It is plausible that attention should be
focused on communities with specific sets of challenges and opportunities. The six criteria leave a number of communities out,
but it may give a sense for where to begin. However, the guidance provided by these six criteria at times appears overly broad
and subjective while at other times are incredibly precise. The
first criterion focuses on communities that have been reliant on
manufacturing and automotive industries and are facing challenges
assisting displaced workers. Arguably, every community in the
state can claim they qualify under this criterion because it is too
general. The automotive industry alone affects a great number
of Michigan communities, particularly in Southeast and Central
Michigan, but when manufacturing writ large is included, most
major population centers qualify.
The second selection criterion is just the opposite. It provides very
specific guidelines for whether a community would be included.
We know that approximately 24.5% of Michigan adults over 25
years of age held at least a Bachelor’s degree or above. We also
know that a community college service area is typically defined
by county so it is possible to ascertain how many community colleges fall “significantly below” the state average. Significance is
a subjective evaluation as well, but one might begin by simply
identifying all counties below 24.5%, or by extension, eliminate
those counties where Bachelor’s attainment exceeds the state
average. Table 1 demonstrates that 11 counties (among the 30
most populace in MI according to the US Census Bureau) exceed
the state average.
Private higher education represents another important sector, which would reduce the number of eligible community colleges, but given the higher tuition rates and the fact that they are not state supported in a direct way,
they are not included in this analysis.
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Bachelor’s Degree Attainment by County, 2006
Washtenaw County, Michigan
Oakland County, Michigan
Ingham County, Michigan
Kalamazoo County, Michigan
Midland County, Michigan
Livingston County, Michigan
Kent County, Michigan
Clinton County, Michigan
Ottawa County, Michigan
Isabella County, Michigan
Source: American Communities Survey (ACS), 2006
Five of the 11 counties identified above are home to community
colleges – Washtenaw, Oakland, Ingham, Kalamazoo, and Kent.
If the study had followed criterion 2, Washtenaw Community College, Oakland Community College, Lansing Community College,
Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Grand Rapids Community College would have been eliminated from consideration.
The third criterion references the community college track record
for serving the technical demands and employer needs of the
area and is too subjective to approximate so it cannot be used to
meaningfully limit the eligible sample. However, the fourth criterion can be used for that purpose. When we look at the number of
community colleges that reside in the same counties as four-year
universities, we would also eliminate Wayne County Community
College, Schoolcraft College, Henry Ford Community College, Mott
Community College, and Delta College. Two very objective criteria
alone eliminate 10 of 28 community colleges from consideration
because they either reside in the same county as a four year public
institution or they have more than 24.5% of their adult population
with a Bachelor’s degree or above.
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The final two criteria are perhaps the most difficult and problematic
to measure and as such, require a bit more specific attention. The
fifth criterion suggests that only community colleges that have the
staff and facilities in place would qualify and this revenue neutral
approach speaks directly to the existing tension between efficiency
and quality in the context of the existing missions of our respective
state institutions. The final criterion addresses employer support
and the future potential for workforce demands. Very few employers were contacted in the context of this study and given the
changing nature of the workforce, many estimates suggest that
the top growth jobs will exist in areas that do not exist today. We
can only assume then, that community colleges are in touch with
their communities’ needs, which they have done very well historically, and that employers are equally aware of what opportunities
will exist in the future. The Voorhees group did not identify which
institutions responded to the survey, but conservatively, only 18
institutions would have qualified and 23 responded. It is likely
some proportion of those non-respondents were from eligible
communities so we expect that fewer than 18 of the responses
included in the analysis fit these criteria.
Defining the Applied Baccalaureate
The heart of the issue is partly definitional but equally philosophical. Baccalaureate education has always been highly valued in
part because students are taught to be effective and adaptable
learners who can reinvent themselves in a global market, which
is a different definition than what an applied degree connotes.
The primary difference is the expectation for broad-based general education. A major limitation of this study was that it did
not provide a clear enough definition of what constitutes applied
baccalaureate education. The Voorhees group put forth the following definition:
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A degree program that builds upon the technical content gained
at an associate’s level. The combination of technical and higher
level courses prepare graduates for higher level job opportunities related to their area of technical specialty. The Bachelor’s
of Applied Science and Technology degree is designed to provide
students with the opportunity to complete a baccalaureate
The first portion of the definition is similar to the definitions put
forth by other states that have adopted some form of applied
baccalaureate, particularly focusing on the technical content at
the associate’s level. However, it differs in two important ways
from other states: (1) it is less specific and (2) within the definition
it drops the applied orientation of the degree. Consider the definition put forth in Florida, where community colleges have been
given some discretion to offer the applied baccalaureate:
The Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) is the designated degree
for flexible baccalaureate programs that are designed to accommodate the unique demands for entry and advancement
within specific workforce sectors. BAS programs provide degree
completion opportunities for students from a variety of educational backgrounds, but primarily those with A.S. degrees or the
equivalent. BAS degree programs conform to all articulation
conventions (including common course prerequisites, common
course numbering, and faculty credentialing in accordance with
the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools). BAS degree
programs typically include capstone experiences that provide
opportunities for students to demonstrate the application of
acquired knowledge, skills, and competencies.
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Inherent in the Florida definition is an understanding that the
degree designation is intended to meet unique local workforce
demands (covered in the six criteria discussed above) and an understanding of the nature of the baccalaureate curriculum. Note
that in Florida, any applied baccalaureate must conform to a state
wide articulation agreement. At the College of St. Petersburg, an
Associates granting institution, the guidelines were even more
stringent noting that the programs had to be extensions of existing
associates of applied sciences (rather than simply the AS identified
above) and that all programs had to include the state standard of
36 credit hours of general education and a foreign language.
Beverley Bower, expert on the community college baccalaureate
from Florida, points out a challenge implicit in the definition above
that is essential to the implementation of the Bachelor’s of Applied
Science (BAS). Florida, like Texas and others to adopt variations
of the community college/applied baccalaureate program, has
a highly coordinated higher education structure, which includes
common course numbers, coordinated curricular expectations,
and statewide articulation agreements. Those conditions do not
exist in Michigan. The important point regarding the definition is
that when it is kept overly broad, it provides no guidance in terms
of what qualifies and what does not, which will be discussed in a
moment. The responses suggested that the community colleges
are interested in offering a broader array of baccalaureate programs than one might categorize as “applied.” In another brief
we will discuss the intersection of the unique and differentiated
purposes of both community colleges and universities and the
evolution of baccalaureate education, which is fundamentally a
critical definitional issue.
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In Response to the Findings and Conclusions
Not surprisingly, without specific guidance regarding what
constitutes an applied baccalaureate, the community colleges
overwhelmingly identified programs that already exist as BS and
BA degrees in colleges and universities. In simple terms, it may be
useful to suggest that a program already established at the baccalaureate level as a BS or a BA would not also be offered as an applied
baccalaureate. In fact, colleges and universities already have an
established mechanism for distinguishing applied baccalaureate
programs. For example, a student may complete a Bachelor’s of
Fine Arts (BFA) or a Bachelor’s of Social Work (BSW), if those were
the specific fields into which they planned to enter. They are not
“applied” in the same sense as those framed in terms of science
and technology, but they focus more directly on the knowledge,
skills and aptitudes expected in their respective professions. The
difference is that they are subject to general education requirements consistent with the existing standards at the university.
For the past several years, community colleges in Michigan have
been advocating for their ability to offer a Bachelor of Science in
Nursing (BSN), and the results clearly suggest that this is foremost
on their minds today as well. Nearly 81% of all institutions responding they would like to offer the applied baccalaureate identified
nursing as one of the programs. From a different perspective more
than 22% of the 77 programs identified were nursing programs.
In another brief, we will address the challenges inherent in the
focus on the BSN. The Bachelor of Science (BS) is a well-establish baccalaureate track in colleges and universities and it would
not constitute an “applied” degree, which suggests something
different than the already established baccalaureate education
provided by four-year colleges and universities.
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Education is another degree that would not meet any criterion suggesting it is an applied degree, beyond what might be “applied” in
any major course of study. Teachers earn a BA and in many cases
are likely to continue to pursue a Masters degree in their major
area or in education – an issue which should be discussed in the
context of the applied baccalaureate. Teaching poses an additional
challenge because despite what theVoorhees group reports on the
need for teachers, that demand simply does not exist in Michigan
as it does in other states. Michigan has a shrinking school aged
cohort and it pays teachers higher than most states in the nation.
Even in the “high demand” areas of math, science, and special education, the need is not as great as other states experience. Seven
additional institutions identify business related programs which
may or may not overlap with existing four year programs and the
same is true in the health related professions. It is not clear from
the summary presentation whether the programs in these areas
fit within an existing baccalaureate degree framework or not. It
would be interesting to apply a Florida or a Texas standard to the
programs identified to see how many identified programs might
actually be considered “applied” elsewhere.
For the most part, many of the limitations of this study result directly from the way in which the problem was crafted in legislation
and those limitations have been articulated above. However, the
researchers in this case are in part responsible for several important limitations. As mentioned earlier, they put forth a very broad
definition of an applied baccalaureate as guidance for responding to the survey. However, in the second portion of the study,
they point out there are very specific, clearly identifiable ways to
specify what constitutes an applied degree. Muffo, Voorhees, and
Hyslop (2008) suggest
One logical definition that one might use is that a bachelor’s
degree in applied science or science technology is any program
that grows out of an existing associate degree of applied science or technology, i.e. one that typically is not transferable to
a traditional BA or BS program (p. 8).
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In fact, the definition articulated above is similar to the one utilized
for St. Petersburg College in Florida. The researchers point out two
limitations. The first is a problem for Michigan specifically in that
they do not use common terminology for all degree programs, so
greater care would be required to differentiate those that transfer
from those that do not. The second is where the researchers appear to have inserted a political agenda into the research findings.
They go on to say later in the same paragraph that
…if one were to limit bachelor’s degree consideration only to
those programs that are labeled an associate of applied science
or technology programs, a range of other associate programs
which might be considered for the baccalaureate degree would be
eliminated despite their vocational or technical nature (p. 8).
For one, it might eliminate the Bachelor of Science in Nursing
(BSN) which the vast majority of campuses identified as a possible
candidate. The research on this question would have been stronger if they had established a clear, specific definition based upon
what exists in the field, use that as guidance for completion of the
survey and then compare the actual responses to the definition to
suggest which of those actually meet the definition. They suggest
it would be too difficult to differentiate among the myriad variations in the titles of programs. In terms of the amount of time they
were given, they are probably right. But that should not suggest
for a moment that it is not possible to develop a mechanism for
sorting and identifying which programs are transferable to the BS
or BA and which are not. But broadening the definition in this way
and altering the terminology to include vocational (which casts
a wider net than applied science and technology) casts a shadow
on the degree to which this research has maintained a standard
of objectivity necessary in a highly political debate.
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Perhaps most troubling was their conclusion that, given their
findings, a broader interpretation of the legislation is appropriate.
The section assessing the degree to which the community colleges meet the six criteria articulated in SB 234 demonstrates very
clearly that comparatively few institutions would qualify to offer
an applied baccalaureate. They suggest it may be limited to SE
Michigan and as articulated above, even there, the concentration
of universities is greatest. It is at this point in the research that it
becomes apparent that the research team contracted to do this
work has a position on whether community colleges should be
able to offer baccalaureate degrees and their judgment prevents
them from recognizing that Michigan already has a model in place
for offering transferable baccalaureate programs through the
university center model, prominently promoted by Al Lorenzo,
President of Macomb Community College. The advantage of the
university center model is that it addresses the geographic access
many community colleges provide and it provides a measure of
external quality control because the universities are the sponsors
of the baccalaureate programs and they ensure what is taught is
consistent with what their accrediting body recommends. It also
recognizes and affirms the important and complementary roles
community colleges and public universities play in the provision
of higher education.
In subsequent briefs, we will address the nursing issue specifically
given that it was clearly the most important finding in the study.
The nursing crisis is national in scope and it is not simply a matter
of training more nurses. Shortages exist in the number of nurse
faculty, clinical supervisors and adequately prepared prospective
students. We will also return, in a third brief, to the broader issues of purpose and the unique challenges of asking community
colleges to assume yet another purpose while simultaneously
achieving a set of efficiencies that may not materialize if community colleges truly begin to offer baccalaureate education. In
the end, it would have been useful to assess the economic and
employment needs of the state, but assuming those needs only
exist in the 28 communities with two-year colleges was a disservice
to the state and it fell short of the expectations articulated in the
Cherry Commission.
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More troubling is the notion that we can identify a solution before
we have fully understood the nature of the problem and the range
of possible approaches to addressing that problem – doing so
makes for poor policy. In this study, DLEG was charged to conduct a study on a highly political issue and the result was a survey
asking a group of institutions if they wanted to offer something
they have already fought to offer. When they said yes, the study
allowed them to define what it was they wanted to offer and
accepted their word that the program constituted an applied
baccalaureate, they would meet local demands, and they would
do so in a revenue neutral way…at least in terms of faculty and
facilities. They may have a sense of their workforce demands,
but we question their assumptions regarding whether they have
the faculty and facilities in place. This issue will be taken up in a
subsequent brief.
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Lorenzo, A. (2005) The University Center: A Collaborative Approach to Baccalaureate Degrees. In Floyd, Skolnick,
and Walker, 2005, Eds. The Community College Baccalaureate: Emerging Trends and Policy Issues
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Community colleges have been charged with playing a critical set
of roles in our state’s educational and economic landscape. They
educate those many of the least prepared students for college; they
respond to many of the unique labor demands for communities;
they provide opportunities for adult workers; and they prepare a
cadre of students for the transfer into four-year institutions. That is
a lot to expect from any one sector and they should be commended
for playing these roles. However, we should not expect that we
can simply add another mission to their plates, even if they ask
for that role. It has been and continues to be the primary mission
of four-year colleges to provide the highest quality baccalaureate
education for more than a century. It is simply unfair to community colleges to ask them to offer the applied baccalaureate and
it devalues what our four-year colleges and universities provide
and the intentionality with which they provide it.
If we hope to address this issue well in Michigan, we should assess
where our needs have gone unmet, identify possible solutions and
engage in a broader conversation among state policy makers,
community colleges, public universities and the private sector
(both non-profit and for-profit). There are a number of ways to
meet the existing demand, but none of them include identifying
a solution first and then seeking out the problem.
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Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan
101 S. Washington Square, Suite 600
Lansing, Michigan 48933
Ph: 517.482.1563
Fax: 517.482.1241